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Hitsville USA

January 28, 2009

One of the best things about spending a couple of hours at the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan, are the tour guides. They ask questions of the group. They have a great, deadpan sense of humor. They tell the story of the legendary soul music corporation founded in 1959 in the unassuming two-storey residential building in which the museum is housed with relaxed aplomb, using the personal pronouns "we" and "us" instead of "they" and "them" to create a cozy sense of inclusivity and immediacy. And they talk faster than Michael Jackson dances, so you have to be alert to keep up.

Housed in the unassuming two-storey residential building that served as the headquarters of one of pop music history's most famous song factories between 1959 and 1972, the museum -- with the aid of its formidable guides -- takes visitors back through history, stopping en route to take stock not only of countless hits and soul music esoterica but of the impact of Motown on social and cultural history.

Though the museum is small, there's plenty to look at and think about, from the Steinway Grand that's been played by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and the sequinned glove Jackson wore in his "Billie Jean" video to the influence of Motown on British bands like The Beatles and its role in the civil rights movement.

It's equally fascinating to hear about founder Berry Gordy's canny business sense, in terms of how he transformed an $800 loan into a multi-million dollar corporation by being a formidable spotter of talent, getting around radio airplay rules and taking a do-it-yourself approach to everything from packaging 48s to working through the night to produce hundreds of takes.

I suppose ultimately I would have enjoyed a slightly less cheerleadery view of Motown's legacy. Like the records that Gordy put out, there's a lot of spin on the story. The guides skim over (or completely omit) the less shiny bits, like the reasons for Gordy's decision to expand his company to Los Angeles in 1968 following the Detroit riots and finally cease operations in Detroit entirely in 1972, his skepticism regarding protest songs like Gaye's "What's Going On?" and Motown's decline in more recent decades. Still, the emotion one feels while walking through the cramped corridors of "Hitsville USA" and standing in the very studio where some of the greatest musicians and songwriters of the 20th century made their magic is at times overwhelming.

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